How do you celebrate the dead?

For many Americans, today is for dressing up in costumes, eating lots of candy, and maybe getting a little spooked. Most of us don’t think about the meaning behind Halloween, but I would guess that based on its commercialization, it’s generally considered one of the most fun holidays of the year.

But tomorrow, Raices Latinas, a student group at STH, will join Latinx populations across the globe to celebrate El Día de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”), a holiday most strongly associated with Mexico. Día de Los Muertos consists of many fun traditions, but its meaning is much deeper than that of Halloween.

day-of-the-deadAccording to Karen Zenteno, president of Raices Latinas, this day is a time to commemorate loved ones who are no longer with us. When celebrating, it is common to arrange altars containing pictures of loved ones and flowers, candles, and some of their favorite treats or foods. Why? To welcome them, of course! “The traditional belief is that spirits of those who have died will visit their homes and find the altar as a welcoming gift letting them know they are still remembered and loved,” Karen told me. “Since the spirits are visiting their homes during this time, people have parties to celebrate loved ones and to remember them in a lively way.”

Día de los Muertos is celebrated in this way based on the assumption that the dead would not appreciate mourning and sadness. The deceased remain part of the community and are celebrated as such. In contrast, Halloween associates “the deceased” with spooky characters like zombies or ghosts. What does it say about American culture that we associate the dead with spookiness and fright? There’s your daily dose of theology. No debate about heaven or hell, damnation or forgiveness – just a universal celebration of the deceased.

You could say that the holiday is rooted in theology, since it is celebrated on All Saints Day (November 1st), a traditional Catholic holiday. However, it is unique in the sense that it combines traditional Catholicism with indigenous Aztec ritual. “I personally didn’t grow up with this celebration since it’s more of a Catholic tradition,” Karen said, “but my grandma set up an altar for her daughters when I was young once. I remember her expectantly waiting for their spirits to visit our home.”

Today I’ll probably eat more candy than I should, and might even watch a scary movie if I’m feeling brave. Tomorrow, though, I hope to celebrate El Día de los Muertos by remembering the dead in a positive and lively way.

Raices Latinas is holding a service on Tuesday at 6:00 pm in Muelder Chapel to remember loved ones and celebrate their lives. Click here for more information. 

For further reading:
“Día de los Muertos,” National Geographic
“First Take: The Paradox of Carnival,” by HDS Professor David Carrasco


Anna Carro is a 2nd year MTS student at Boston University School of Theology specializing in Ethics.

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